Early in Katie Crouch’s ambitious and unnerving new novel, Abroad, her young Irish student narrator, Taz Deacon, takes us on a tour of an Etruscan archeological museum in Grifonia, Italy, where she encounters violent images of Iphigenia, stabbed as a sacrifice to Artemis. Taz wants to understand whythis happened and whythe disturbing images are so insistently reproduced and displayed. A smug and patronizing German dude in her tour group warns her: “You are too interested in this gory story…. It’s a sad, complicated story. Much too complicated for you.” You can’t handle the truth, girl, he sniffs. Abroad, like the myth of Iphigenia and the many familiar and unfamiliar stories it refracts, issimultaneously complicated and disarmingly simple. Like its setting, Grifonia, “there are layers here, thousands of years of life and death and secrets and untold history.” But don’t let Crouch or Taz or the German dude scare you. This is a can’t-look-away kind of book.
Many people will read Abroad because they remain interested in, and maybe even perversely turned on by, the sad and complicated story of Amanda Knox. Others will read Abroad because they have come to expect from Crouch’s earlier books that she will have trenchant, funny, useful answers to the question “What is it, really, that feeds a friendship between women?” Crouch herself has encouraged this kind of reading, notably in her February 2014 Salon article, “Amanda Knox, what really happened: Writing toward the actual story.” In Salon, Crouch says that, like Taz, she is most interested in the question of why: “Why was Meredith Kercher killed?” And Crouch describes Amanda Knox as “caught in a fiction other people want to read,” encouraging Knox to write her own story. Crouch says that she herself is “working on a novel loosely inspired by” Meredith Kercher and Amanda Knox. “Truly worthy fiction has empathy, even for the sinners,” she says.
Abroad is truly worthy fiction. It has empathy. It’s even inspired. It is not, however the “actual story” of Amanda Knox—at least not in the newspaper or tabloid sense, and it never pretends or wants to be. Crouch’s loyal readers will find serious attention paid to what this book calls “that empowerment thing. Staying in front of it,” even as the story acknowledges, achingly, that, “of course, you’re never in front of the heart”.
What may surprise readers of Girls in Trucks and Men with Dogs is that Abroad is not a comic novel. Taz makes no bones about this: “I’m not funny at all. I keep telling you all that.” In the absence of humor, ironies abound, most hauntingly: “I couldn’t imagine anything worse than a life of studying the words of the dead”—which is what we find ourselves doing when reading Abroad.
Crouch tells us what she is up to: like Taz in her art history paper, Crouch is “writing about perspective.” Abroad offers stunningly original perspectives on life and death and stories—new ways of looking at ourselves and each other, at our intimacies and our boundaries. This opens up spaces for new feelings: “The desire to feel everything, no matter how awful.”
One important way in which Crouch manipulates our perspective is through frequent and savvy allusions to other fiction and popular culture. Who is reading whom might explain even more than who is fucking whom in Crouch’s story. (Mercifully, no one talks about reading Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying—this is Italy, after all—but the Mississippi ghost of Addie Bundren lurks not far away.) Taz’s first boyfriend reads to her, but then “How is a girl supposed to react to Keats?” A classmate in Italy asks her, “Have you read Sophocles yet?” Homer, Ovid, Jane Austen, Graham Greene, and many more authors are read and talked about. Mark Twain is never mentioned. But if you call your book Abroad, you are begging for questions about Innocents. Crouch doesn’t seem to be as preoccupied with judging who’s guilty and who’s innocent as followers of the Knox trial might expect or hope. She is profoundly interested in subtler dimensions and tensions of the sort Blake explores: “fearful symmetry.” One of Crouch’s more self-satisfied characters claims, “I do hate watching the slaughter of innocents.” Many of us do not hate watching as much as we should.
The most literary and sustained “mashup” that defines Abroad’s psychology and tone emerges through Crouch’s contemporary re-imaginings of Henry James and Patricia Highsmith novels. Crouch invited comparison with James even before her book was published, daring her readers in the Salon article: “If you don’t believe me, believe Henry James.” In Abroad, Claire asks Taz, “Haven’t you read Daisy Miller?” Claire, the American girl, obviously has. She knows that Winterbourne struggles to understand Daisy—“was she also a designing, an audacious, and unscrupulous young person?”—which elicists this warning from his aunt: “I haven’t the least idea what such young ladies expect a man to do. But I really think that you had better not meddle with little American girls that are uncultivated, as you call them. You have lived too long out of the country. You will be sure to make some great mistake. You are too innocent.” It’s an all-too-familiar story—just ask any college student returning from or planning a year abroad. (Or, better, give them a copy of Abroad. Godspeed. ) But the story’s very familiarity, in both literature and life, makes it all the more important that it remain open to the kind of radically destabilizing perspective Crouch offers.
And then there’s Patricia Highsmith, whose skewed, still-underappreciated perspective on life Crouch mashes up with that of Henry James. Asked, “What do you like to read?” Taz responds, unhesitatingly, “Patricia Highsmith.” Earlier, we have seen her toss aside Highsmith for Ovid (exponentially intensifying the recurring eroticism of bookish college students living abroad). Later Taz returns to her “yet unfinished novel of Ripley.” Here, Crouch’s knack for balancing resonance and restraint comes into play: simply by having Taz break off her reading “once Tom had off’d Murchison,” we may recognize that she is reading Ripley Under Ground, rather than the better known first book in the series, The Talented Mr. Ripley. (You should all read Highsmith. Or at least peek into her world by watching or re-watching the 1999 film adaption of The Talented Mr. Ripley. I wish Minghella were still around to translate Crouch’s Grifonia to film.)
So, we’ve got Ripley under ground. Taz under ground. Crouch under ground. We must follow: we must go under ground. My favorite line from Ripley Under Ground? “Honestly, I don’t understand why people get so worked up about a little murder!” It just might be Crouch’s favorite line, too. In any case, Abroad gets us worked up about getting worked up about getting worked up. (The author has a wonderful sense of humor, even if her characters, in this particular book, do not.)
All of these allusions and mashups—sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious, always apt—could bury the originality of a less talented writer than Ms. Crouch. They could make us feel either too dumb or too smart. They could make us feel the way the patronizing and clueless professor makes Taz feel: “You just need to read more.” Or make us feel more like the detectives and journalists who read Claire’s journal after Taz’s death, a journal “grossly misinterpreted and pored over for clues that weren’t there.” Instead, by situating her story so openly within so many other cultural stories and fictions and myths (including those in the interludes about martyred women of Grifonia), Crouch elevates Abroad to something more than just another psychological thriller about innocents and not-so-innocents abroad. While never forgetting to tell a good story, Abroad becomes a sophisticated meditation about the true purpose of stories: “Tell me about yourself. So few people ever said that to me, or cared.”
In the end, we return home to our own worlds from Abroad without any new certainties about Amanda Knox and Meredith Kercher. But we carry home a renewed empathy. We carry home lots of questions (“What was I hoping? For everyone in the world to be in love with me?”). Most importantly, and most enduringly, if we have read Abroad with an open mind and open heart, we return to our lives beyond books and myths with some fresh perspectives on who we really are, who we aspire to be, how we want to be known, and how we want to be remembered. Because in the end, Crouch reminds us:
No one can bear the thought of being unremembered once they vanish.
– David H. Krause has taught literature for many years and currently lives near Chicago.